600 tanker drivers working for Shell staged a 4-day strike last week, with another planned this week, despite the government trying to turn the public against them and away from Shell's profiteering. Yet, it is precisely against this profiteering, on their backs as well as ours, that the drivers are striking.
In 1993, Shell subcontracted tanker driving. As a result, today, the drivers' average hourly rate is 23% lower than in 1992 - not to mention cuts in benefits and working conditions! Despite this, the bosses only offered a 6.5% rise on basic for this year. This triggered the strike, and rightly so!
Of course, Shell pretends to stand above the fray, as if it was not its petrol that the drivers ferried across the country! Last year, the company made £14 billion profit, while its chief executive earned £4.5m and its directors raked in a 16% increase. Where do these piles of money come from, if not from cutting the drivers' wage bill and racketeering the rest of us? A good reason, if there was ever one, to feel in solidarity with the strikers!
Meanwhile, last weekend, 12,000 workers employed by Network Rail to maintain tracks staged a 30-hour stoppage over an issue which seems different, but is, in fact, very similar.
In 2002, the government decided, at last, that rail maintenance could not be left to shareholders. State-owned Network Rail was set up, but still relied on 7 private contractors. Then, in 2004, due to the subcontractors' mess-up, maintenance was taken back in-house, together with many workers - but without changing their employment conditions. Officially, these conditions were meant to be harmonised so that no-one would lose out.
But nothing was done. Network Rail wanted to have its cake and eat it: it had full control of the work, while workers were treated like subcontractors, with a variety of divisive wage rates. Four years on, Network Rail's employees are fed up with it and they are making their voice heard!
In these two strikes, however, the real issue is that wages are just getting too low, against the backdrop of rising food and petrol prices, rocketing fuel bills, etc... This affects all sections of workers, in every industry, public and private, whether working for subcontractors or big companies, temps or permanent. On the opposite side, shareholders and bosses have piled up massive wealth over the years. It is high time this wealth was used to meet the needs of those who produce it.
This is why we are all concerned by such strikes, no matter how limited - because sooner or later, it will be our turn and the more of us who are out, the more chance we will have!